Reproductive tract: In female rabbits, cancer of the uterus, is fairly common. This cancer is preventable by having your rabbit spayed between six months and two years of age. The spay procedure involves removal of the rabbit’s uterus and ovaries. Spaying at an early age also reduces the occurrence of breast cancer later in life. Male rabbits, especially the dwarf varieties, may become aggressive when they reach sexual maturity and may exhibit excessive biting and spraying of urine. The urine may develop a very strong odor due to the presence of male hormones. The best solution to these behavioral problems is neutering (surgical removal of the testicles). This procedure is recommended to be done any time after four months of age.
Overgrown Teeth: Rabbits’ teeth grow continuously throughout their life. If the incisors (front teeth) or molars (back teeth) are maloccluded, i.e. they do not meet evenly, then they do not wear down when the rabbit chews. This results in overgrowth. Malocclusion is usually caused by a congenital deformity of the jaw. Other causes can be injury or trauma to the teeth or jaw and infection in the tooth roots. Overgrown teeth can cause mouth infections, ulceration of the inner surface of the cheeks or tongue and inability to pick up and eat food. Rabbits may show interest in food but seem unable to eat, drooling seen as wet fur around the mouth and neck , and weight loss. Overgrown teeth need to be trimmed and periodic trimming is often needed for the life of the rabbit. If the molars are involved, or if the rabbit is very skittish, a general anesthetic may be required.
Anorexia or Loss of Appetite: Rabbits have a very sensitive digestive tract and many things can cause an upset resulting in loss of appetite. A common reason is a diet low in fiber and high in calories. This combination can lead to obesity, fatty liver disease, slow movement of the intestinal tract, and imbalance of bacteria with bad bacteria overgrowing and taking the place of the good bacteria. Another common condition that can cause appetite loss is overgrowth of the teeth (see above). Any infection or disease can cause a rabbit to stop eating. Loss of appetite in a rabbit should be considered a serious problem and you should contact your veterinarian as soon as possible. The longer a rabbit goes with out eating the more difficult it becomes to get him to eat again, regardless of what caused the problem to begin with. Rabbits rapidly develop a serious condition of the liver, hepatic lipidosis, when they go without food for long periods of time. If the liver deteriorates excessively there may be no way to reverse the process. Early diagnosis and treatment of appetite loss is the best way to save your pet’s life.
Pasteurellosis: A large percentage of rabbits harbor a bacteria in their sinuses called Pasteurella multocida. It is most often transmitted between chronically infected does (females) and their litters or between breeding pairs. The bacteria most often resides in the nose, lungs, and eye membranes but can spread to other areas of the body. This bacteria doesn’t cause a problem in most rabbits with a healthy immune system. However, under certain stress situations, such as poor diet, high environmental temperatures, poor air circulation, overcrowding, moving, etc., this bacteria can reproduce rapidly and cause potentially serious disease. This bacteria may cause infections of the upper respiratory tract, uterus, skin, kidney, bladder, tear ducts, middle ear or lungs. Clinical signs of a pasteurella infection may include: discharges around the eyes, nose or anal area, loss of appetite, depression, diarrhea, head tilt, loss of balance, lumps/bumps under the skin or labored breathing. NEVER attempt to use antibiotics without veterinary supervision. Your rabbit’s stomach and intestinal tract have an extremely delicate balance of beneficial bacterial organisms that are responsible for a large part of the digestion of the rabbit’s food. If antibiotics are given indiscriminately, death may result because the antibiotic killed the normal bacteria in the gut which led to the overgrowth of deadly bacteria. A blood test is now available to detect if a rabbit is carrying this bacteria in his system. This test may be recommended by your veterinarian in certain situations such as for potential breeding animals, new pets and in certain disease states.
Diarrhea: True diarrhea is a condition where all stool being passed is in a liquid or soft form. This is usually a very serious condition in the rabbit. Any rabbit with diarrhea should be examined by your veterinarian immediately. Some serious infections that result in diarrhea can be fatal in less than 24 hours. What most people refer to as diarrhea, is an intermittent passing of soft liquid or stools. The rabbit will also pass normal formed stools. The soft stools may be seen more frequently at certain times of the day (many times overnight) and may have a strong odor and accumulate on the rabbit’s fur. The liquid stools are actually the cecal pellets (see section on Night Feces) that are unformed. There are a variety of reasons for this condition, but by far the most common reason is lack of sufficient fiber in the diet and obesity. Eliminating the pellets from the diet and feeding good quality grass hay only for one to three months may clear up the problem. Consult your veterinarian if your rabbit has this condition before making changes in the diet.
Ear mite infestations cause accumulation of a light brown crusty material that fills or nearly fills the external ear canal. The underlying tissues are usually very raw and irritated. The infestation may be treated with a topical preparation and /or an injectable medication. Diagnosis is based on seeing the mites when examining a sample of the discharge under a microscope.
Cheyletiella Skin Mange (“Walking Dandruff”) is a infestation of the skin by the Cheyletiella mange mite. Clinical signs include: loss of large patches of fur and a dried scale or dandruff within the fur of the rabbit. Rabbits may or may not display increased scratching. Treatment involves an injectable drug along with a medicated shampoo.
Giardia is a microscopic protozoan parasite of the intestinal tract that causes serious and potentially fatal disease. It is found mostly in young rabbits and must be treated very aggressively with the appropriate medication, subcutaneous or intravenous fluids, and nutritional support. Clinical signs of infection include: abnormal feces, dehydration, lethargy, and low body temperature. Diagnosis is based on finding the organism on microscopic examination of a fresh fecal sample.
Flea infestation is common in rabbits. Fleas can cause irritation of the skin with open sores. More seriously, fleas can cause severe blood loss often requiring a life saving blood transfusion. Consult your veterinarian for advice on proper flea control for your rabbit. Many flea products approved for use in dogs and cats can be poisonous to rabbits. A flea collar should never be used on a rabbit.
Coccidia is a parasite contracted by eating food or drinking water infected with contaminated feces. Clinical signs include: diarrhea, loss of appetite, failure to gain weight, soft to watery feces, mucus and/or blood in the feces, soiled anal area, dehydration, and even death.
Maggot Infestation: Rabbits with open wounds, moist dermatitis, urine scald, and soiled fur with diarrhea can become infested with maggots. This occurs most commonly in rabbits kept out of doors where flies can lay their eggs in the soft wet fur. The maggots hatch from the eggs. The skin in these areas of infestation rapidly decomposes. It is this decomposing tissue that the maggots feed on. These rabbits are in pain and often develop severe and fatal infections if not treated immediately.
Sore Hocks (Hutch Sores): Sore Hocks are infected and ulcerated wounds on the underside of the feet that result most often from over exposure to wire flooring on cages or lack of movement from living in a small enclosure. As mentioned in the housing considerations earlier, every cage or hutch that a rabbit lives in should have a sitting board or some other surface, like Plexiglas, for the rabbit to rest on. Over exposure to the uneven surface of a wire floor can puncture through the fur of the rabbits foot, infecting the tissue and creating a wound. Treatment may involve use of topical and/or injectable antibiotics, bandaging the foot and surgical removal of infected tissue when the condition is severe. Treatment can last several weeks. Obesity and thin fur on the feet predispose a rabbit to sore hocks.
Heat Stress/Stroke: Rabbits are especially vulnerable to heat stroke, particularly those that are overweight or heavily furred. Temperatures above 85 degrees, high humidity, poor ventilation, and overcrowding are factors that can lead to heat stroke. The signs of concern include: panting, weakness, redness of the ears, slobbering , refusal to move about, collapse and seizure type activity. The rabbit should be bathed in cool (not cold) water immediately, if possible, apply rubbing alcohol to its ears and feet to promote evaporative cooling and taken to the veterinarian immediately for follow up care. This is a common cause of death in rabbits and should be taken very seriously. The best way to avoid heat stress is to provide adequate shade, good ventilation, no overcrowding, and even a light mist sprayed by a fan into the rabbits enclosure on hot days.
Care of Orphaned Rabbits: Many people mistakenly think a mother is ignoring her young if they don’t see her with them. In reality, the mother rabbit or doe, may only nurse her young one or two times per day. In addition, many rabbits will kill their young if the nest area is repeatedly disturbed. Leave the doe and her babies alone unless the babies look sunken or dehydrated. Chances are, the mother is doing her job quite well. If the condition of the babies is in question, notify your veterinarian before attempting to disturb the nest.
The information in this rabbit care handout was taken in part from information obtained from Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital, Westchester, IL.